Sonic Farm Creamer
on test
Sonic Farm Creamer
Dual-channel Valve Preamplifier
Hugh Robjohns
C
anadian manufacturers Sonic
Farm are based in Vancouver,
but founders Zoran Todorovic
and Boris Drazic met when they formed
a band in 1966 in (the former) Yugoslavia.
After a decade building and running their
own studios, the civil war drove them
to independent ventures in America
and Germany, before being reunited in
Canada in 2009. The company philosophy
is “to do whatever helps get the right
tone, without giving in to any hype”,
and they are very happy to use valves,
transistors or op-amps provided that “the
results are subjectively remarkable”. It
sounds like a very good plan to me! Sonic
Farm currently make three products:
a valve DI box (2DI4), a stereo line-level
conditioner (Creamliner), and the
Creamer mic preamp.
The Creamer was designed specifically
to introduce creative coloration to
microphone signals through hybrid
technology, carefully blended to
form a cohesive but versatile whole.
Deliberately coloured preamps provide
an antidote to the perceived ‘sterility’
of digital recording, but there’s ‘good
coloured’ and ‘bad coloured’. The trick,
of course, is to find the right blend of
properties that delivers subjectively
‘good’ sound colorations. The Creamer
is based on a configurable valve circuit
(triode or pentode) with an input
46
With user-configurable valve stages, the option
of transformer-coupling and more besides,
Sonic Farm’s preamp provides a broad palette
of tonal options.
transformer, a solid-state buffer, and
selectable solid-state or transformer
output coupling, a combination that
allows the sonics to be shaped in four
distinct ways.
Available in two primary forms,
the Creamer Plus model incorporates
dedicated rear-panel transformer-coupled
line inputs and some additional
tone-shaping EQ options, which are
omitted from the Standard version. The
red front panel of both units is distinctive
and attractive, with white-edged black
ovals denoting the two channel sections,
and clear white labelling. The controls for
each channel comprise eight sturdy push
buttons, five miniature toggle switches,
and a shiny chicken-head knob.
Signal Path
Mic and line inputs are connected
on rear-panel XLRs, and unbalanced
instrument inputs are via front-panel
quarter-inch jacks. A Line/Inst button
selects the line input unless an instrument
is plugged into the front socket (this
button is labelled Hi-Z in the Standard
version). Phantom power is also switched
from the front panel, as is a 15dB pad
May 2013 / w w w . s o u n d o n s o u n d . c o m
for the mic input. The latter plays an
important role, as the input signal
level affects the sound character of the
Creamer’s valve gain stage.
An oversized 1:10 ratio Cinemag
mic-input transformer is employed for its
high saturation threshold as much as its
sound character, while the line input uses
a separate 1:1 transformer. The instrument
input goes directly to the valve, with an
input impedance of 2.2MΩ.
The mic transformer normally provides
20dB of gain, but a front-panel button,
labelled +6dB, reconfigures its windings
to drive the valve a little harder, if desired.
The side-effect of this reconfiguration
is that it simultaneously decreases the
impedance by a factor of four and,
since the Creamer offers three input
impedances from a front-panel toggle
switch anyway, there are six impedance
options in total. The nominal options
are 900Ω (low), 2.4kΩ (medium) and
10kΩ (high) as standard, while engaging
the +6dB mode provides 225Ω, 600Ω
and 2.5kΩ instead. Selecting the input
pad fixes the input impedance at about
2.5kΩ. Different input impedances affect
the tonality of most dynamic and some
transformer-output capacitor mics, so this can be
thought of as another creative tone-shaping tool.
An EF86 (low-noise pentode) valve fixed-gain stage
operates in Class-A with negligible negative-feedback,
and the circuit is switchable between triode and
pentode configurations for different distortion
characteristics. With minimal negative-feedback,
the inherent non-linearity produces quite significant
amounts of distortion — which is all part of the
intended musical coloration. In triode mode, it
provides a modest 14dB of gain, rising to 21dB in
pentode configuration. However, a ‘Gain Up’ button
bypasses the valve’s cathode to increase the gain by
4.5dB (triode) or 9dB (pentode), and in the Plus model
the cathode circuitry also includes switchable inductors
and capacitors to provide two gentle LF (Fat) and two
slightly stronger HF (Air) shelf boosts. The Fat settings
deliver boost from 400Hz or 600Hz, while the Air
boost is from 2.2kHz or 7kHz. The amount of boost is
normally 4.5dB in the triode mode and 9dB in pentode
mode, but these can be reduced via internal trim pots
if required. Setting the Fat and Air toggle switches
Sonic Farm Creamer
pros
• Four distinct operating modes and tonalities.
• Deliberately but creatively ‘dirty’ sounding.
• Subtle but useful EQ options.
• Wide range of input impedance options.
• Great sounding instrument input.
• Unusual but very pleasing on the ear!
cons
• Not all control functions were as described in the manual.
• Unusual gain structuring — although, to be fair, that’s
more an observation than a ‘con’!
summary
The Creamer Plus is an unusual preamp that has been
skilfully designed to introduce variable musical distortion
that can enhance the sonic character of virtually any source.
The controls are unfamiliar, but afford a wide range of
tonalities when mastered.
w w w . s o u n d o n s o u n d . c o m / May 2013
47
on test
Sonic Farm Creamer
to their midway positions provides a flat
response, and this EQ is also disabled
when Gain Up is selected. The line and
instrument inputs provide up to 13dB
of gain in triode or 20dB in pentode
modes, and unity gain is achieved with
the level knob at about 12 o’clock and 10
o’clock, respectively.
A continuously variable attenuator
sets the level feeding the Cinemag
output transformer or discrete
complementary-transistor balanced
output driver, the rear-panel line output
being derived from one or the other
via a front panel push-button. The Plus
model I received for review was equipped
with an extra toggle switch, marked 0
and +6dB on the review model, that
was supposed to reconfigure the output
transformer. The manual claimed that it
provided an additional 6dB of gain on the
transformer output, but in fact it delivered
a whopping 16dB boost regardless of
the output mode selection. As we were
going to press, Sonic Farm told me that
they’ve revised this on current production
models, so that this switch instead offers
0, -6 and -12dB attenuation, which seems
more useful. The output transformers
fitted in the review model (‘Creamer A’)
had Ni-Fe cores, but a steel-cored option
(‘B’) is available, or you can have one
of each in the two channels (‘AB’). The
final push-button implements a polarity
reversal at the output.
Overall, the maximum possible gain is
a mammoth 74dB in pentode mode and
60dB in triode mode (this remains the
same on the version with the reassigned
toggle switch), while the minimum (with
the level knob fully up and only the pad
Alternatives
The UK price of the Creamer Plus places it
in direct competition with the likes of the
Thermionic Culture Rooster and Demeter
VTMP2C valve preamps, as well as the
solid-state Phoenix Audio DRS2 and Buzz
Audio MA2.2 preamps.
48
selected) is 25 and 18dB, respectively.
The rotary level knob allows the signal to
be faded out completely, if required. The
overload LED comes on with a mic input
(pad selected) of an impressive +21dBu
for the triode mode, and +4dBu for the
pentode mode, but by then the output
is +29dBu with around two percent
harmonic distortion! The maximum rated
output is actually +22dBu, at which level
there is around 0.7 percent distortion,
while with a more typical +10dBu output
the THD+N figure is nearer 0.2 percent.
In general, the pentode mode contains
more higher-order odd harmonics than
the triode mode. Signal-noise ratio was
108dB (A-weighted) and the noise floor
averaged -82dBu.
Just to complete the front panel
description, a bi-colour LED provides
simple level metering, showing gain-stage
overload (red), and a progressively
brighter signal-present indication (green),
which starts to illuminate about 43dB
below the overload level. A blue LED next
to the Tube Mode button indicates the
presence of the heater supply voltage,
and serves as a power-on light. A large,
round mains-power rocker switch is on
the right of the front panel, while the
rear carries an IEC mains inlet, fuse
holder and ground-lift switch. The unit is
wired for 115VAC or 220-240VAC mains
supplies at the factory, and overall power
consumption is given as 30W.
Impressions
The Creamer provides four distinct
operating conditions: triode or pentode,
with solid-state or transformer outputs,
plus options to vary the drive level into
the valve and into the output transformer.
A lot of valve preamps are ‘one-trick
ponies’, but the Creamer offers several
genuinely useful and distinct tonalities.
The pleasing pentode coloration retains
a sense of natural presence and detail,
while sounding a little brighter, with
a tad more transient emphasis, than
May 2013 / w w w . s o u n d o n s o u n d . c o m
The rear panel sports separate line and mic
inputs on balanced XLR connectors. When
purchasing, the customer can specify a 110 or 240
volt PSU, for US or EU use, respectively.
the triode mode, although the latter
still sounds immediate, clear and very
musical. Selecting the output transformer
adds a little more ‘iron’ and weight to
the sound, providing a useful alternative
to the solid-state output, although it is
sensitive to the load impedance (as all
transformers are).
This isn’t what anyone would call
a ‘clean’ preamp: it’s not like a GML or
a Grace Design, not even at the gentlest
settings — but it is always wonderfully
appealing and musical, adding a relaxed
sense of life and character to every
source. The more I used this preamp and
compared it with my familiar references,
the more I became aware that transients
seemed to be enhanced in a subtle but
interesting way, too — probably because
of the minimal negative feedback. Electric
guitars and keyboards (miked or DI’d),
percussion, drums, voices — everything
took on a pleasing, larger-than-life
character and became somehow more
satisfying and organic.
Using the Creamer Plus as a mix-bus
‘processor’ was remarkably beneficial,
too, as it introduced a lovely character
and body to DAW mixes — and with so
much headroom on the mic input (and
a 10KΩ impedance option), you even
have the choice of line or mic input
transformers too!
In short, then, I was genuinely
impressed with the tonal versatility and
musical quality of Sonic Farm’s Creamer
Plus and, if you want a high-quality
preamp with a flexible character, I can
highly recommend it.
££ Creamer Standard $2150; Creamer
Plus $2650. Prices in Canadian dollars,
excluding shipping & VAT.
TT Sonic Farm +1 310 402 2390.
WW http://sonicfarm.com
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